I have been
"teleworking" for over ten years now.
It started fairly basically, with an electronic
mail box which I would send letters and documents
to when I was out of the office, and which could
then be accessed by my office in the House of
Commons. I used this, by present standards,
primitive facility during my election campaign to
become Leader of the Party in 1988. Very little
changed until three years ago, when the Liberal
Democrats started to use Cix for e-mail and
conferencing, and I gained the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
This has revolutionised the way I
am now able to work. Both my constituency office
and my London offices have email addresses, and I
am now able to discuss issues with them, no
matter where I am, be it Bosnia or Birmingham.
Using my small palmtop machine, I can write an
article in Sarajevo and send it to a newspaper
for publication without the need for a printer.
An online party
The conferences that have been
set up on the Cix system help me to keep in touch
with the Party as a whole. There are several
hundred activists now on-line, and the traffic in
the various different fora can be daunting.
Policies are dissected and discussed in these fora, and feedback to speeches, articles or TV
and radio appearances can be almost
instantaneous. These discussions allow me to see
the mood of many of our activists, and I can
discuss peoples' concerns with them directly.
This allows for very fast dissemination of
As a Party, we use this speed of
communication to pass on press releases and
statements from Parliamentary spokespeople, items
which are also posted to our web pages on a daily
basis. Through this system, we managed to inform
the Party when Emma Nicholson joined the Liberal
Democrats before the story broke nationally.
Often in the run up to Conference, which is the
Liberal Democrats' policy making body, motions
are suggested and amended on email, prior to
their submission. It allows people in very
disparate locations to get together and debate
matters of concern, without having to worry about
their phone bills!
Much of my constituency work
involves correspondence with the local district
and county councils. Both are now moving towards
a system where casework can be emailed directly
to them, which would lead to a completely
paperless transfer of documents relating to each
case. This will save time, and should lead to a
more efficient service to my constituents. It
should also mean that if an urgent case arises
whilst I am abroad, I can deal with it and
forward on my response immediately.
I am fascinated by the
opportunities which videoconferencing presents.
Some Liberal Democrat MPs, represent
constituencies which are remote, with widely
scattered constituents, who may not find it
possible to attend a surgery with their MP, such
as Jim Wallace who represents the Orkneys and
Shetland. But if in a nearby village there is a
public access point which provides a
videoconferencing system, they could dial up
their MP and have a face-to-face discussion,
without travelling possible for several hours to
achieve the same aim.
Promoting access to government
Liberal Democrats believe that
new technologies should be all about access. It
cannot be right that cable companies can
"cherry-pick" the area they want to
cable. Those people who live in rural areas, and
those on inner city housing estates, have as much
right to the information superhighway as the
leafy suburbs currently being cabled at a
frenzied rate. There are housing estates in
Britain where only 25% of households have access
to a telephone. And yet, the people living there
would have much to gain from the Internet, and
its email and videoconferencing spin-offs. This
is why there has to be "pump-priming"
by the Government to encourage the cabling of the
whole country. And why there must be a network of
public access points in schools, colleges,
doctors' surgeries, libraries and village halls.
With access for anyone who wants
it, the Internet will then provide another form
of communication for people with their MP. These
new forms of communications will make MPs more
accessible to a new part of their electorate, and
quite possibly one they may not have communicated
with before. I have received many messages from
people who have said that they would not have
written a letter, but were happy to email me. I
am happy to receive these, and always endeavour
The Parliamentary convention
which prevents me from becoming involved in
issues outside my constituency still applies
however. This is important, so that I can
continue to concentrate on providing the best
possible service to my electorate. Being an MP
is, after all, a service industry!
The challenge and the
Increasing use of information
technology will not in itself generate respect
for the political process from the electorate.
What it will do though is to allow MPs more
contact with their constituents, and this contact
will be much more immediate. By becoming more
responsive to the needs of their constituents,
and keeping them informed of events through local
web pages perhaps, they can begin to rebuild the
mutual trust and respect which should exist
between an MP and their constituency.
Freedom of Information is central
to the philosophy of the Liberal Democrats, and I
am convinced that this core belief is the reason
why the Party has embraced email and the Internet
with such alacrity. I am certainly determined to
ensure that Liberal Democrats are at the
forefront of this important technological change,
and see it as an immense challenge and
opportunity for politicians at all levels.
Paddy Ashdown is MP for Yeovil
and former leader of the Liberal Democrats. He can be
contacted at The House of Commons, Westminster
|This article, which
was first published in Flexibility in 1997, gives
an insight into how one of the first MPs to adopt
teleworking was able to use it to support a high paced,
Productive use of ICT seems to be
a must for politicians, both to be more efficient and to
improve communications with their voters.
But 3 years on, we wonder how many
havecaught up with Paddy Ashdown?